Delphi XM SKYFi2
The Delphi XM SKYFi2 satellite radio receiver offers 130 channels of programming, plus the ability to pause and replay.
Special to
updated 7/5/2005 12:40:17 PM ET 2005-07-05T16:40:17

When you wonder about the future of electronics in the car, look no further than the automobile industry’s own plans. Over the rest of this decade, manufacturers will begin to outfit their new models with 42 volt batteries, rather than 12.  What are those 42 volts going to power?  Well, just about anything you can imagine—and much of it is already on sale.

A lot of folks assume that the only way you’re going to get the latest and greatest in automotive gadgetry is to buy a new car that’s already fully equipped.  While that may be true for some of the really state-of-the-art stuff — say, radar-powered collision avoidance — the fact is that lots of the other cool stuff can easily be added to your existing wheels.

Starting with audio, the biggest change lately is satellite radio: lots of great-sounding channels, from Howard Stern to the NFL, many sans advertising (although skeptics wonder how long that will last).  The head-to-head competitors Sirius and XM have both made installation as easy as possible.  Each company offers a variety of models that include roof-top antennas and built-in FM transmitters so that your existing car audio system can be used for listening; most of the receivers can also be removed for use at home.  Sirius’ Starmate package, for example, is less than $100 and sometimes includes significant rebates.  (Of course, for both services you still have to subscribe, currently at $12.95 a month.)

XM offers similar packages but also provides the XM Direct tuner that mounts out of sight and permanently connects to popular “satellite ready” car audio systems from companies like Sony, Pioneer and Alpine.  XM Direct also works with some factory-installed radios from BMW, Mini and Chrysler.  And Alpine is the first company to offer an in-dash CD player that has a built-in XM receiver: Just add an antenna to the CDA-9820XM, subscribe and your 150 channels are on the way.

While you’re upgrading your audio, you may also get pitched on installing a surround sound system in your car — DVDs, after all, are encoded with surround sound as are the multi-channel SACD or DVD-A audio formats.  But this is one audio retrofit that’s a bit tricky to do neatly, since the crucial center-channel speaker needs to be, well, right in the middle of your dashboard.  For this technology you may just want to wait until your next new car — it’s hard to compete with factory-installed units like the 14 speaker, 11 channel, 330-wattMark Levinson surround sound system for Lexus. 

The fact is, however, for car electronics buffs, audio has lately taken a backseat to car video. (Although it’s usually car video that actually ends up in the backseat.)  For starters, you can buy a number of in-dash DVD players that neatly replace your existing radio or cassette/CD player.  Where’s the screen?  A motorized LCD cleverly slides out of the dashboard and pivots up for video viewing—except when you’re driving, thanks to a mercifully sensible safety interlock.  A mid-priced example of the genre is the Jensen VM9410, which offers a 7-inch 16:9 screen plus the ability to play every kind of DVD and CD format imaginable. An interesting option: You can connect a rear-view camera (RV dealers sell units that mount on or under your rear bumper), so shifting into reverse automatically puts the rearward view on screen. 

In many automobiles, however, the crucial video audience is the backseat "are-we-there-yet" set.  Units like the Jensen mentioned above have outputs for additional video screens, but the question is: Where to put them?  The most obvious space is the back of the front seat headrests, and a number of companies offer products to make that happen.  The more radical of them actually require one to cut into the back of headrest — not something recommended for viewers at home.  A gentler approach is the Pyle Pyramid LCD monitor, a 7-inch screen that mounts directly to the back of the headset without any hacking or hewing.  And perhaps slickest of all, a California company called Myron & Davis sells exact-replacement headrests (with matching leather or fabric) for many recent cars, with LCD monitors built-in. One tip: The best video monitors include wireless infrared headphone transmitters so that the 100th replay of Finding Nemo remains confined to the backseat. 

Since drivers aren’t supposed to watch movies anyway, why not install the whole video system in the backseat?   If you have enough headroom — as in SUVs — a tidy solution is a ceiling-mounted DVD player.  The Sony MV-900SDS fastens permanently to the ceiling of your vehicle and has a fold-down 9” screen.  The screen rotates — so the driver can make sure the video is playing correctly — and, best of all, the unit also includes two of those all-important infrared backseat headphones (although the sound can also be routed through the car’s existing audio system).  If you don’t want to install anything, of course, there are lots of portable DVD players with power cords that plug into your cigarette lighter and reach the back seat—the low-cost Toshiba SD-P1600, for example, also includes two headphone jacks for the Nemo set.  A twist on portables is the Audiovox D1210, which has a huge 12-inch screen; it comes with a fabric housing for car use that straps around the front seat.  When you take it in the house, the Audiovox also has a built-in stand and a TV tuner. 

Undoubtedly the most amazing add-on for cars today is the navigation system — that incredibly sophisticated blend of computer data, internal gyroscopics and global positioning satellites that all combine to calmly utter “In two hundred feet, turn left.”  While it’s tough to duplicate the in-dash cool of factory-installed navigation systems, the Pioneer AVIC-N2 comes close. It installs like a normal car audio system but includes a motorized swing-out 6.5-inch LCD that provides a full, DVD-based touch-screen car navigation system. You can even add XM radio’s NavTraffic system, which monitors real-time traffic conditions and then chooses routes to avoid traffic congestion.  All this, and it plays CDs and regular DVDs too. 

One alternative to the in-dash solution is the Garmin StreetPilot 2620.  This self-contained navigation unit mounts on the dashboard but can be moved to other vehicles.  Instead of a DVD, its map data is on a 2.2-inch hard drive, and if mounted with a clear view of the sky, it needs no separate satellite antenna.  Its touchscreen is small — 3.3-inch by 1.7-inch — but the 2620 also includes a remote control and the ability to provide voice prompts.  A very close competitor in this category is the Magellan RoadMate 700 — if you’ve ever rented a Hertz car with a navigation system, then you’ve already tried the Magellan technology. 

Finally, what would the driving experience be without your cell phone?  Probably a lot safer, for starters.  But nothing short of capital punishment seems likely to keep drivers from chatting, so hands-free options are crucial.  The best way to go is via Bluetooth, a short-range wireless link.  But cell phones are only now arriving with Bluetooth built-in — what if you have an older model?  It’s probably best to spend a little extra money to buy the Jabra A210 Bluetooth adapter, which plugs into your headphone jack.  Then you can buy any one of a myriad ultra-cool Bluetooth earpieces (such as the Motorola HS850 with car charger) to use with your existing phone.  When you buy a new phone with Bluetooth, you can sell your used A210 adapter to a technologically-challenged friend.

Once you’ve fully loaded your vehicle with the latest technology, there’s one other gadget you might consider.  That would be the bright yellow Vector Start-It VEC021ST — a portable, rechargeable jump start system, complete with polarity-sensing cables, in case the kids forget to turn off the DVD player. Just to play it safe, keep one in the trunk until those 42 volt batteries come around. 

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